Live

Watch CBSN Live

A Black Vietnam War veteran was nominated for the Medal of Honor. He's still waiting 56 years later.

Did race deny Vietnam vet the Medal of Honor?
Did race deny Vietnam vet the Medal of Honor?... 05:11

Retired Colonel Paris Davis is one of the first Black officers to be part of the Army's Special Forces. His courage and valor earned him the respect of his soldiers in Vietnam, and a nomination for the nation's highest military combat award.

But Davis never received his Medal of Honor — his file vanished in Vietnam, nearly 56 years ago in 1965.

That year, Washington saw anti-war protests rage. Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, galvanized the civil rights movement. 

In Vietnam, then-Army Captain Paris Davis broke barriers on the battlefield. 

"Were you one of the first Black officers in the Green Berets?" CBS News senior investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge asked the veteran.

"Yes, I was," he answered. "It worked well because, I said 'Look, you can call me Captain Davis… But you can't call me a n****r.'"

He added, "And it did happen."

In June 1965, Davis led a nearly 19-hour raid northeast of Saigon.

"We were stacking bodies the way you do canned goods in a grocery store," Davis recalled.

Hit by a grenade and gunfire, Davis would not leave behind Americans Billy Waugh and Robert Brown. Both were gravely injured — and Brown had been shot, Davis said.

"I could actually see his brain pulsating. It was that big," Davis said. "He said, 'Am I gonna die?' And I said, 'Not before me.'"

Asked if he had been told to leave, Davis answered: "Twice."

As he first revealed in 1969 to up-and-coming local TV host Phil Donahue, Davis said he told his superior, "Sir, I'm just not going to leave. I still have an American out there."

"He told me to move out. I just disobeyed the order," Davis told Donahue. There by Davis' side during the 1969 TV interview was Ron Deis — now the team's youngest survivor.

Deis later recalled Davis' actions that day to CBS News and was visibly emotional.

"Captain Davis refused and said, 'No, I'm not leaving while I have men out on the field,'" he said.

This month, in a rare interview, the sole surviving witness to Davis' actions, 91-year-old Billy Waugh, described to CBS News how he had been shot multiple times in the legs and was unable to walk.

"We ended up in an open area together," Waugh said. "He (Davis) grabbed me, and he drug me."

Waugh, who went on to have a storied career in both the Special Forces and the CIA, confirmed he was the sergeant identified in Davis' December 1965 interim Silver Star citation. That is typically awarded while a Medal of Honor packet is being processed. That document, which memorializes Davis' heroic actions, is the only surviving record from the original Medal of Honor packet.

At the 5th Special Forces Headquarters in Nha Trang Vietnam, Waugh, badly wounded and soon heading to Walter Reed for 9 months of medical treatment and rehabilitation, said that he personally wrote up Davis for the Medal of Honor.

"I just described the action and tried to describe it best I could," he said. "And I wrote what I had seen and what I participated in and made him look good, as he had done. I can't describe where he was part of the time, because I was not with him. We were split (by gunfire), then we came back together."

Waugh said he submitted the paperwork and heard that it was making its way through the system. But in 1981, with no award for Davis, Waugh said he wrote a personal statement.

"I wanted to re-do it, to see why it hadn't gone," he said.

In 1965, the same year as the Battle of Bong Son, the leader of U.S. forces in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, visited Davis' outpost. His commander, Billy Cole, also recommended Davis for the Medal of Honor.

retired-colonel-paris-davis.jpg
Retired Colonel Paris Davis CBS News

Somehow, the paperwork had vanished in Vietnam. A 1969 military review "did not reveal any file on Davis."

Neil Thorne, who volunteers his time to recover medals for overlooked veterans, compared the Medal of Honor nomination paperwork he recovered through the Freedom of Information Act to gold. 

What makes Davis' case stand out, Thorne said, was that it was lost.

"Everybody I've talked to that served under him says that he's the best officer they've ever served under," he said.

Thorne said the loss or destruction of Medal of Honor paperwork is "very uncommon," adding that "there would've been multiple copies."

In 1969, the Army was ordered to submit new paperwork "ASAP" for Davis. 

For a second time, there is no evidence that a Medal of Honor file was created.

Waugh, whom Davis carried to safety, wrote in a 1981 statement, "I only have to close my eyes to vividly recall the gallantry of this individual."

Over the years Davis' fellow soldiers also lobbied Congress. But each time, the process stalled.

"I know race was a factor," Davis said — a factor he says he experienced during his 23 years in the Army.

He recalled an encounter with another pilot he rescued while on a different mission.

"I saw him at Fort Bragg with his wife and his kid, they saw me. He went on the other side of the street, so we wouldn't have to speak," Davis said. "If that had been a White guy, you know, he would've gone over, and hugged him. That's racism."

During the interview, Davis also said soldiers forget color when under attack. "When you're out there fighting, and things are going on like that, everybody's your friend, and you're everybody's friend...the bullets have no color, no names."

Asked if the battlefield was an equalizer, Davis said "Always."

Only 8% of Medal of Honor recipients for Vietnam were Black.

As for Davis, there is new momentum to recognize his case as the celebrated veteran approaches his 82nd birthday.

"We're all trying to right a wrong," Ron Deis said.

Asked what it would mean to him to have his service honored, Davis replied, "It would mean all the things that I haven't been able to dream about."

An expedited review of Davis' lost nomination was due earlier this year. The final call rests with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and President Biden.

Asked if Davis still deserves the Medal of Honor, 56 years after the battle, Waugh said, "Well, that's never going to… can't change. That cannot change, wouldn't change in my mind. My mind is fixed on it. I may have a simpleton mind, but it doesn't change too much, and when it comes to awards such as that, it's pretty well up front my mind. Davis did a good job, and I am proud of him."

This story was updated to include remarks from an interview with Billy Waugh.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.